Star rating – 8/10
Claire Tomalin is very much in vogue at the moment, owing to the publication of her latest biography, that of Charles Dickens. I haven’t read my copy yet, but am certainly looking forward to getting stuck into it even more after hearing the author herself.
At this Manchester Literature Festival event she was modest, charming, witty, intelligent, fascinating, and so enthusiastic about her subjects that it’s truly infectious. In fact – just like her books. She told great anecdotes and gems about the great author, and is not wearing rose tinted glasses about him either. She is very upfront about his bad behaviour towards his wife and mother of his many children, Catherine, whom he deserted and told lies about to be with his new young love Nelly Ternan.
Her 1991 book about Dickens’ relationship with Nelly, ‘The Invisible Woman’ is revelatory and honest, but does not condemn the man totally for his most obvious failing as he took to lies and deceit to hide his relationship and preserve his all important reputation.
Her biography of Samuel Pepys is also a classic, and in addition to reminding the world about this most skilled of diarists, gives a fascinating history lesson about the times that he lived through, which included the execution of Charles I, and the Great Fire of London, to name but two.
She is generous about her subjects, and has that rare ability to get right under their skin, leading her readers to a rich and informed understanding of their lives and times. And she could have talked all night with such captivating authority about Dickens that I am sure the audience would not have noticed the hour. Just a minor moan – the setting of the Banqueting Hall in Manchester’s fantastic Town Hall was a treat, but the loud pumping music from Albert Square during most of this talk was definitely not.
I can safely predict that after I have devoured her book on the whole of Dickens’ life, I will be turning pretty sharpish to her other biographies of Thomas Hardy, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austin et al – what a rich literary pleasure awaits.